Juniper trees (Juniperous) are members of the cypress (Cupressaceae) family, related to cedars, sequoia and cryptomeria. They are evergreen and recognizable by their whorls of "needles" or extremely slender leaves, and the berrylike fruits. Junipers are mostly native to the Northern Hemisphere, though some species are found in mountainous areas in tropical Africa. Historically, juniper trees have been valuable as landscape plants as well as sources of wood and wood products, flavorings and medicines.
The genus Juniperous was first described by Linnaeus in 1753, but its history goes back much farther. The slow-growing Juniperous communis, appeared in its native Europe after the last Ice Age, about 15,000 years ago. First-century Roman naturalist Pliny wrote about juniper's medicinal qualities, and the fragrance of the burning wood was used in temple purification rites. In the medieval period, juniper branches were strewn over the floors of indoor rooms to sweeten the air. In some European cultures, juniper was thought to protect households from evil spirits of all kinds.
Juniper Wood: Historic Uses
The American red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is the only juniper with "cedar" in its common name. It has long been used to make pencils. Because of its fragrance and insect repellent properties, it is also used to line cedar chests and closets. Eastern red cedar wood is also resistant to water and weather and has been used for household vessels and utensils, like pails and tubs, that must be water tight. Red cedar oil is also a component of some insecticides.
An oil derived from berries of Juniperis communis has been used for centuries to flavor gin, a distilled spirit, beer and liqueurs. Historically, the oil has also been used to flavor marinades, especially for venison, stews and sauces.
Medicines and Cosmetics
Medicines made from oil of juniper have been prescribed for all kinds of complaints by herbalists, including Pliny. It is a diuretic and useful in the treatment of dropsy (congestive heart failure). It has also been used to treat various digestive ailments. Historically, juniper oil has sometimes been used to induce abortions. The oil has also been made into ointments to treat external wounds on animals. Red cedar oil, extracted from the wood of Juniperous virginiana, has been used to make liniment. This oil has also been a component of cosmetics, perfumes and soaps.
Juniper trees of various species have long been used for a variety of landscape situations--as specimen trees, massed to provide screening or severely clipped into hedges. Juniperous scopulorum, the Rocky Mountain juniper, with blue-green needles, has been a popular landscape tree in its native region.